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Timeline: History of Corrections


Crime and punishment was a major concern for people throughout history and since the establishment of social life. The earliest story of crime and its punishment can be referred to as the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and the story of Cain and Abel. Throughout history, the law has seen major development until the form in which it is accepted in most countries today. In that regard, the punishment in the form of a correctional system had gone through various developments as well. This paper presents a timeline for the history of Corrections, along with the development of law and punishment until modern times.

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Timeline – (Ancient Times 2000 B.C. -5th century A.D.)

  • Date: Around 1750 B.C.E Event: The earliest set of laws

Located in the Babylonian Empire, The Hammurabi codes were known as the earliest set of laws concerning punishment and justice, where Hammurabi stated that, “[the] law was intended to maintain justice and destroy evil so that strong did not oppress the weak.” (Morris & Rothman, 1995, p. 9) Although imprisonment was not widely used in the Babylonian Empire, some prisons were maintained mainly for “petty offenders and debtors, and for noncitizens who broke the law.” (Kurian, 2006)

  • Date: 6th century B.C. Event: Creation of public authority in Athens

The autonomous Greek city-state, named polis in Greek, created a public authority, which responsibilities included the settlement of private disputes, issuing laws, and the creation of the crime category. Through the next centuries, polis developed into what can be considered the modern version of the police, which derived its name from the Greek word, taking a monopoly over written laws, regulating dispute settlements, and punishing criminals. (Morris & Rothman, 1995, p. 4)

  • Date: 451 B.C. Event: The Law of the Twelve Tables

On this date, the law of the Twelve Tables, the first written law, was issued, which was to constitute the basis of Roman law, and which in turn contained the origins of much of the Western law. (Kurian, 2006) The most used form of punishment was death, where the only instance of imprisonment was mentioned regarding the laws of debt. “Debtors who could not or would not pay were to be held in private confinement by their creditors for sixty days.” (Morris & Rothman, 1995, p. 14) Additionally, a form of cells, ergastulim, was maintained for rebellious slaves, or family members for infractions of household discipline.

  • Date: 427–347 B.C. Event: Plato’s Ideal System of Prisons.

After witnessing Socrates drink poison to satisfy a death sentence imposed against him, he devoted a sufficient amount of effort to propose the ideas of reforming prisons, which were particularly mentioned in his book, “Laws”. Plato considered three kinds of prisons, a public building near the marketplace, a reform center for serious offenses, and a prison for incorrigibles located far from the city. Plato’s ideas reflect the actual functions of prisons in Greece as places of temporary custody before other punishments are executed. (Morris & Rothman, 1995, p. 8)

  • Date: The middle of 2nd century B.C.
  • Event: Establishment of specific courts.

From the middle of the second century, specific courts were established for particular offenses. Although the courts were still run by individuals, they started to resemble the current differentiation of courts in the legal system. (Morris & Rothman, 1995)

  • Date: End of the 1st century B.C. – 222/224 A.D.
  • Event: The Classical Period in Roman law.

The period is characterized by the reliance of a special staff to compose the laws and their administration. During the period there was a flourishing of technical literature of jurisprudence produced by the imperial jurists.

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  • Date: 533-534 A.D. Event: Body of Civil Law.

Justinian issued a collection of works including Institutes, Code, and the Digest, which were known since the thirteenth century as the Body of Civil Law. These texts were influential on the law in Europe and American until the end of the eighteenth century.

Timeline – The Middle Ages (6th-16th century A.D.)

  • Date: 9th century A.D. Event: The establishment of the system of the Latin Christian Church.

Although the system of the Latin Christian Church was established in the fifth century, it was in the ninth century that their system was territorialized, i.e. made applicable to all the inhabitants of a territory.

  • Date: 12th century A.D. Event: Revival of Roman Law.

The Justinian code was revived specifically in the universities of Italy.

  • Date: 1166 A.D. Event: Gaols.

Henry II, of England, ordered the county sheriffs to build jails (gaols), for the defendants to wait for trial (Kurian, 2006). Until that time, or in locations in northern Europe, defendants were held in their homes until the trial.

Timeline –Modern Era (15thcentury – 19th century)

  • Date: 1532 Event: Roman’s Law revival

The Roman Empire issued a full legal code- the Constitution Criminalis Carolina. (“History of Crime and Punishment,” 2009)

  • Date: 1557 Event: Brideswell

The first approximation of a correctional institution, where “Brideswell” was converted into a workhouse for vagrants and petty criminals. This correctional facility was popular in England.

  • Date: 1597 Event: The Vagrancy Act

The discovery of the New World represented a place where European convicts could be sent to. With the passage of the Vagrancy Act in 1957, the transportation of convicts became prescribed, and by 1606 it was economically beneficial. (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2009)

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  • Date: 1636 Event: Capital Crimes

The state of Massachusetts listed thirteen crimes that were considered capital crimes, and similarly, in New York, 20% of the crimes were capital crimes. As a result, the prisons were merely used to “hold prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing or as debtors’ prisons, but were not the punishment itself.” (“Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Colonial And Early post-revolutionary Periods,” 2009)

  • Date: 1682 Event: The Great Law

With the arrival of William Penn, Pennsylvania adopted the Great Law, which emphasized hard labor in a house of correction as a punishment for most crimes.

The exception was premeditated murder which punishment was death. (Clear, et al., 2009, p. 42)

  • Date: 1778 Event: The Penitentiary Act in England

An act in British parliament was passed under the influence of the reformer John Howard, of England, who published “The State of Prisons” in 1777. His model stated that “Prisons should be quiet, clean and orderly, publicly funded and regularly inspected. Prisoners would be isolated in their cells to shield them from corruption, and enlisted in reformatory programs”(“History of Corrections,” 2005)

  • Date: 1790 Event: The Penitentiary in the US

The first appearance of the penitentiary, a concept implying the isolation of prisoners from society, was in Philadelphia Walnut Street Jail, which was converted to allow separate confinement. The concept established the Pennsylvania system of prisons and attracted the world’s attention.

  • Date: 1816-1821 Event: The New York System

The legislature in 1816 in New York authorized a new state prison in Auburn, in which in 1821 Elam Lynds was assigned as warden. The system, unlike the one in Pennsylvania, emphasized isolation only at night, while during the day, the prisoners congregated in workshops. (Clear, et al., 2009)

  • Date: 1839 -1843 Event: Rehabilitation

The period during the administration of Captain Alexander Maconochie in Australia, a colony for convicts, an emphasis on rehabilitation was made, where Maconochie emphasized “compassionate treatment of inmates, and release of inmates based on good behavior and sound attitudes rather than time served.” (Kurian, 2006) The initiatives were ultimately rejected, but nevertheless, they had an influence on the subsequent administrations in later generations.

  • Date: 1870 Event: Reformatory Movement

Starting with the several models of reformatory prisons, such as the Irish prison, Norfolk Colony, and the Valencia prison as well as the efforts of such reformers as Joshua Jebb and Walter Crofton, the movement shifted to America and culminated with the formation of the National Prison Congress (later the American Correctional Association). (Kurian, 2006)

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  • Date: 1876 Event: Elmira Reformatory

The reformatory ideas were used by Zebulon Brockway in Elmira Reformatory in New York, where the rehabilitation was controlled through academic and moral subjects, which in the case of success resulted in early release. (“Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Elmira Reformatory,” 2009) The Elmira system had an impact on American prison development, where between 1876 and 1913, seventeen states built reformatories based on the Elmira system. (Kurian, 2006)

Timeline –Twentieth Century and beyond (20thcentury – present time)

  • Date: 1900-1920 Event: Probation

Starting with the probation law in Massachusetts in 1987, in 1900 six states provided for probation. By 1920 every state provided probation for juveniles, and thirty-three states allowed it for adults. (Clear, et al., 2009)

  • Date: 1930 Event: Medical Model

Gaining its name in the 1960s, the model implied the possibility for the inmates to be rehabilitated, through individualized treatment. (Clear, et al., 2009) This model was formally abandoned in 1975. (Kurian, 2006)

  • Date: 1934 Event: Inmate labor

The US Congress established Federal Prison Industries, Inc., a government-owned, not-for-profit Corporation, which employed the prisoners to produce goods for federal agencies. The revenues were used for the training and educational programs, as well as to support inmates’ families. (Kurian, 2006)

  • Date: 1965 Event: Establishment of Standards

After the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended improvements to the correctional system, “the American Correctional Association’s Commission of Accreditation established standards by which it assesses correctional facilities for voluntary accreditation.” The recommendations covered community-based approaches, educational programs, and different treatments for different offenses. (“Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Community Corrections,” 2009)

  • Date: 1974 Event: Juveniles

The Congress passed Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The act provided the separation of juveniles from adults, as well as separating juveniles based on the committed crimes, i.e. juvenile delinquents and status offenders. (“Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Juveniles,” 2009)

  • Date: 1976 Event: The Butner model

The bureau established the Correctional institution in Butner, North Carolina. The model offered advanced programs, free movement, and a normalized environment. The model attracted international attention. (Kurian, 2006)

  • Date: 1980s Event: Crime Control

With the crime increase during the 70s and 80s, the state implemented stricter policies, which is generally named the crime control model of corrections. The end of the century showed record numbers of prisoners, longer sentences, and the increase of the probation population. (Clear, et al., 2009)


Thus, tracing the history of Corrections from ancient times till the modern ones has revealed that people’s desire to establish laws and enforce them has always been immense and eventually resulted in the crimes and punishment system which the modern society uses today. This system serves to regulate violence and injustice in the society and, though it is still not perfect and never stops developing, it is quite efficient, because a number of people who have gone against the laws and committed crimes are getting punished and these punishments often prevent the criminals from recurrent violations of laws.


Clear, T. R., Cole, G. F., & Reisig, M. D. (2009). American corrections (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

History of Corrections. (2005). Correctional Service of Canada. Web.

History of Crime and Punishment. (2009). Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. Web.

Kurian, G. T. (Ed.). (2006). World Encyclopedia of Police Forces and Correctional Systems: Gale.

Morris, N., & Rothman, D. J. (1995). The Oxford history of the prison : the practice of punishment in western society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Colonial And Earlypost-revolutionary Periods. (2009). Library Index. Web.

Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Community Corrections. (2009). Library Index. Web.

Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Elmira Reformatory. (2009). Library Index. Web.

Punishment or Rehabilitation? – Juveniles. (2009). Library Index. Web.

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